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A Big Splash, Then No Cash : WFL Made History in 1974, but 'Whiffle Ball' Didn't Last

March 31, 1994|EARL GUSTKEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty years ago today, a couple of Newport Beach lawyers with hair over their ears and wide lapels shook the National Football League to its core by putting a bold experiment, the World Football League, on page one.

Today, it's hard to imagine anyone getting excited about a $3-million contract for one athlete, let alone three. But the WFL wanted shock value, and that's how much it had to pay for Miami Dolphin stars Larry Csonka, Jim Kiick and Paul Warfield.

The engineers behind the deal were Gary Davidson and Don Regan, the Newport Beach lawyers who organized the league.

Starting in the fall of 1973 and continuing in early 1974, there had been a smattering of stories about a new pro football league. But the reaction was mostly snickering, particularly after the WFL said it would play on Wednesday nights--with a yellow football.

"Whiffle ball," NFL people called it, often with a sneer.

But on Sunday afternoon, March 31, 1974, all the WFL jokes stopped.

Csonka, Kiick and Warfield appeared with Howard

Cosell on ABC that day and announced they had signed to play for the WFL's Toronto--later to become Memphis--franchise in 1975.

It was a $3-million deal, the largest sports contract in history to that point, and a sensational news story. It gave the WFL instant credibility, and it made the half-century-old NFL tremble a bit, if but for a few months.

Kiick and Warfield were key performers at Miami, and Csonka is still perhaps the most effective fullback of the last 30 years. Moreover, all three were stars in a Dolphin dynasty, which began with Miami's perfect 17-0 1972 season.

Around the NFL, executive office doors were shut the next morning. Owners huddled with general managers and coaches, taking a close look at players who might jump.

Plenty did. Quarterback Virgil Carter had been the first to go. After him came veterans Calvin Hill, Ted Kwalick, Daryle Lamonica, Dick Witcher, John Elliott, Gerry Philbin, George Sauer and others.

In early 1973, Davidson and Regan found franchise owners in Anaheim, Birmingham, Chicago, Detroit, Orlando, Honolulu, Houston, Jacksonville, Toronto, New York (later Charlotte), Philadelphia and Portland.

Early in league meetings, it was agreed the league needed to sign a big-name NFL player early and parlay that into season-ticket sales and a TV contract.

Prime target: Joe Namath.

"We had a lot of meetings with Namath's agent, a guy no one could stand, and we just weren't getting anywhere," Regan recalled recently. "Then the IMG (International Management Group) guy who represented Kiick, Csonka and Warfield contacted John Bassett, who at the time owned the WFL's Toronto franchise, and told him the three players' options would be up after the '74 season and that they wanted to talk to us.

"Bassett called us about it, and we called a league meeting. Everyone agreed we needed to sign all three guys. We forgot about Namath. Bassett paid for half the deal, and the rest of the owners chipped in the rest.

"The deal was agreed to, but no one outside the league knew about it. The three players went to Miami and asked (Dolphin owner) Joe Robbie if he wanted to match the deal, and he blew up and threw them out of his office."

The next day, an angry Robbie told a reporter: "Has anyone ever asked you to deposit $3 million in a bank as the price to continue a conversation?"

The numbers, in 1974, were breathtaking: Csonka, 27, got $500,000 up front and a $325,000 salary for three years. Warfield, 31, signed for a $220,000 salary. Kiick, 27, signed for $150,000. The three would join the new league in 1975, but not in Toronto.

The Canadian Parliament threw the WFL out of Canada, claiming it would endanger the Canadian Football League. Bassett moved to Memphis.

*

Paying high-profile athletes to jump leagues didn't begin with the WFL's signing of Csonka, Warfield and Kiick.

When Davidson and Regan organized the World Hockey Assn. in 1972, they passed the hat among owners, extracted $90,000 from each, and wrote a $1-million check to bring Bobby Hull out of the National Hockey League.

Previously, Davidson and Regan created the American Basketball Assn., which later merged with the NBA.

After the WFL signed Csonka, Warfield and Kiick, business moved along briskly for the new league, headquartered in a two-story office building a stone's throw from Orange County Airport.

After Miami's Big Three signed, it seemed as if an NFL player jumped every day. Colorful uniforms--the Southern California Sun team colors were magenta and orange--were purchased. Season tickets went on sale. Schedules were made.

There was no network TV package, but an independent syndicator, TVS, televised the league's "game of the week" on Thursday nights.

The signing of the Miami Three almost put Davidson on the cover of Sports Illustrated before the first league game. The magazine photographed him with Kwalick and Hill. It was to be the cover in April, 1974.

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